Baby Season: Birds of Prey

By Pamela Hartmann

Photos by Jeanette Stone and Jeri Roberts

Raising a baby raptor is tricky. No human can do the job that avian parents do. For this reason, it’s almost always preferable to re-nest a baby bird that has fallen from the nest, and for it to grow up with its own kind in the wild, than for humans to attempt to raise it.

However, placing a baby bird of prey (such as a hawk or owl) back in the nest carries with it its own challenges, as Bob Peak will tell you. Re-nester extraordinaire at Pacific Wildlife Care, Peak is kept busy from mid-April through the end of June reuniting birds with their families—or occasionally with other families.

Having the right equipment is necessary to the task. Peak takes with him goggles, gloves, maybe boots, ladder, ropes, crate, nesting materials, and CD player or iPhone with a speaker—this to use after returning the baby to the nest or branch, when he retreats some distance and plays distress calls. “The parents are quick to respond,” Peak says, “often within a minute.”

And having the know-how is essential. One key to re-nesting, he says, is an ability to identify the species. Some birds can be placed with others of their species from a different nest, but this doesn’t work with Red-tailed Hawks, for example. Knowing the species also tells the rescuer what sort of nest the bird is from, and although the original nest or cavity is usually best, there could be reasons (predators, for example, or a tree too high for a person to climb) to create another, false, nest and place it nearby.

PWC volunteer Bob Peak preparing to “re-nest” this Red-tailed Hawk nestling

PWC volunteer Bob Peak preparing to “re-nest” this Red-tailed Hawk nestling

Another key to re-nesting is determining the bird’s stage of development. A nestling has an egg-tooth beak and a thin coat of down feathers. Older nestlings have down and their first flight feathers. Branchers are old enough to leave the nest and begin hopping around on tree branches. Fledglings are beginning to fly but are still dependent on their parents.

Sometimes a property owner will call PWC, worried about a baby bird on the ground whose “first flight was a failure,” explains Jeanette Stone, Center Operations Director at PWC. But if the parent is alive, there’s no problem; the parent will return. The humans just need to keep watch with binoculars, from a distance, and keep dogs and cats away.

Home Rehabilitation

If the baby is truly an orphan, or if re-nesting is not an option because of an unsafe environment, predators, siblicide, or such, it may be necessary for the bird to be raised by one of several home rehabilitators in SLO County.

 However, Jeri Roberts will tell you that there’s a good reason it’s illegal to raise a raptor—or any wild animal—without a permit from the state. Home re-habbing requires a great deal of knowledge and a huge commitment.

Growing up, Roberts “never even had a parakeet,” she says—let alone a wild bird of prey. But one day about ten years ago, she saw a young woman from Pacific Wildlife Care in an Earth Day booth at Mission Plaza. On the woman’s well-gloved arm was a Great Horned Owl named “Hoot”—one of the few raptors that the state has designated as an educational animal.  Wham. Roberts was enchanted.

Back in those days, before Pacific Wildlife Care had its Morro Bay Rehabilitation Center and wildlife veterinarian, PWC consisted of a group of individual but associated home rehabilitators, and Roberts wanted to become one. She got in touch with the group and told them that she had acreage and a chicken coop up in Prefumo Canyon (“as wild a setting as possible”) and would like to learn how to handle, raise, and rehabilitate raptors such as owls and hawks. She received mentoring from home rehabbers. She went to conferences. She visited raptor centers—even one in Alaska—to find out how they did things. Then she got to work.

Today, Roberts is a Senior Rehabilitator at PWC, through which she does educational outreach, teaches the baby bird class, gets educational birds ready to meet the public, raises baby raptors, and does creancing, the glove training that provides injured adult raptors with the exercise necessary to prepare them to return to the wild—the final step in their rehabilitation.

If her “first love is education,” as she puts it, “trying to raise these raptors” is her “second passion.” As one of several home rehabbers in SLO County, Roberts now has three flight facilities on her property, making it one of the de facto satellites of Pacific Wildlife Care’s Morro Bay Center, the central receiving point where orphaned raptors are first brought for intake—a physical exam, weighing, and banding. Although injured adult birds often remain at the Center for recovery, injured or orphaned babies are always raised by home rehabbers to minimize human contact and avoid imprinting—bonding and recognition of others of the bird’s own kind. It is crucial, of course, that animals returning to the wild not lose their fear of humans, because doing so would make life in the wild even more dangerous. And it’s already “really tough out there”; the mortality rate in the first year of life in the wild is 50%—and that’s when the birds are raised in ideal conditions, by their own parents.

At the PWC Center, with its virtual army of supervisors and volunteers caring for many animals—mammalian, avian, and sometimes reptilian—it would be more difficult to retain the control necessary to avoid imprinting than it is for one human raising a group of nestlings. Hence the small constellation of home rehabbers.

Begin with the Space

To raise a bird of prey, you start with the right setting. Jeri Roberts’ largest flight facility is a cage 30 feet long. Another is 20 feet long, 10 feet high, and L-shaped, with a gentle curve at the angle—a space where young or adult raptors can exercise and practice making turns. But the babies are placed in mews—small raised cages set into the side of the larger facility. In these cages, the babies are safe, and Roberts can see them through peep holes above a sort of doggie door, without being seen by them. This door is a flap that allows her to reach in and feed them with a tool that looks like long tweezers or tongs. For those times when she can’t avoid being seen by baby Great Horned owls, which imprint more easily than other raptors, she wears an owl mask, because once the babies’ eyes are open, imprinting begins.

Within the facility, the mews must be furnished to resemble a natural nest. In the wild, young nestlings (with only a thin coat of down) are kept warm by the mother. So in each small cage, the home rehabber needs to supply heating pads (to provide warmth but not too much) and feather dusters—to simulate Mom.

Birds of a Feather: Identifying with One’s Species

You’ve provided the space and furnished the mews. Now you have to consider the babies’ need for contact with others of their own species. It’s beneficial, for example, for baby Red-tailed Hawks to look out into the larger cage and watch an adult hawk flying, hunting, and preening—something to aspire to, so to speak. At times in the past, Roberts would borrow Hoot as a role model for baby Great Horned Owls. But if she doesn’t happen to have an adult in the outer cage, she puts a mirror in the small cage, so “the babies can see what they are.”

Roberts always hopes to have more than one baby at a time—two to four together in each mew. If she has only one orphan from a nest, she can mix babies from different nests—and even of different ages—though of course they must be of the same species. This often involves negotiating with other home rehabbers, to trade species.

brancher

Great Horned Owl “brancher”

Mixing babies from different ages or nests turns out to be easier with some species than others. Great Horned Owls are easy to mix, as are kestrels. Once, Roberts put a downy baby kestrel with another kestrel that was a little older. Although a baby herself, the older one started feeding the younger. However, Barn Owls are harder to mix in a way that ensures that “nobody gets hurt.” The protocol requires putting up a screen for several days so they can hear but not see one another. Although “you don’t want to make generalizations,” Roberts says, since “they have distinct personalities,” adult male Barn Owls are usually more docile than females. In the wild, the female adult is very aggressive and protects the nest viciously. Babies can be vicious, too. The adult male drops off food at a nest in the wild and immediately leaves because “the babies would attack him.”

In the midst of a busy baby season, it might be necessary to have nests of different species together in the mews, sharing the same flight cage when they’re old enough. This works surprisingly well as long as they don’t see one another—and if the young of one nest are diurnal and the other nocturnal.

However, teaching young birds their own “language” is another matter. Jeri Roberts sometimes plays recordings of calls for the babies (although never distress calls) so they can hear what adults of their species sound like. The problem with this? Humans can’t yet discern the meaning of most calls, or as Roberts puts it, “I don’t know that language.” For this reason, borrowing Hoot, the Great Horned Owl, was a good idea because he was “a very vocal owl.”

The Challenges of Diet

Nestling Red-tailed Hawk – Photo by Jeri Roberts

Nestling Red-tailed Hawk – Photo by Jeri Roberts

Another reason baby raptors are tricky to raise is their diet. Jeri Roberts was once permitted to keep as an educational animal a Barn Owl that had been confiscated from a person with good intentions but a lack of knowledge. This person had taken in the owl as a baby and knew owls to be carnivores but—out of ignorance—fed the bird hamburger meat. When this diet resulted in multiple bone fractures, the owl was taken to a veterinarian, who diagnosed him with metabolic bone disease and notified the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The problem is that raptors must eat whole animals—not just the flesh. Without consuming the bones, too, these birds of prey aren’t able to build their own strong bones. So although Jeri Roberts herself is a vegetarian, she keeps “a freezer full of dead mice” bought at great expense from a company that provides them for this purpose—part of the reason that raising these birds requires a big commitment.

The Time of the Empty Nest

After weeks of being hand fed, the baby birds arrive at the branching age, and Roberts opens the door between the large flight facility and the small cage within it. In the large cage, she has carefully placed branches and boards with roosting areas for the young birds to use as they begin explore the world outside the mew and to fly. Their small nests are still there, but raptors rarely return to the nest.

American Kestrels

American Kestrels

“When they start branching,” she says, “they’re self-feeding, and now we’re in business.” At this point, they learn to fly by practicing, but she has to teach them another skill essential for survival in the wild: hunting live prey. She does this by putting live mice in a long trough inside the flight facility.

In time, the birds are ready for a “soft release” in which they are freed to the wild but are still able to return to a feeding platform outside the cage to supplement their prey from hunting. As their hunting skills improve, the intervals between which they return to the platform become longer and longer.

In the hierarchy of ways to deal with baby birds of prey, re-nesting is always the most desirable. Failing that, surrogacy is the next option (to be covered in the June issue of SLO Coast Journal). The raising of baby raptors by home rehabilitators—no matter how knowledgeable, caring, and attentive—is the option of last resort, with good reason: it’s very, very hard.

Barn Owls

Barn Owls

For more information on Pacific Wildlife Care, to volunteer, or to make a donation, go to our website If you find an injured wild animal, call the PWC Hotline (805-543-9453 [WILD]).

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